There are most likely no simple answers to the myriad questions our world faces today, nor simple solutions to the plethora of problems confronting us.
Think of such issues as: sanctity of life, including abortion, cloning, and assisted-death; religious liberty; traditional vs. non-traditional gender roles, and how they affect such institutions as marriage and parenting; education, which determines what and how young people learn about their history; human rights, especially for the millions of displaced persons worldwide; or our right to free speech, and whether or not it includes hate-speech, pornography, and incitements to violence.
Being a somewhat simple person, I do wonder if there is a basic reason that might account for the rising discord and rancor all around us. Would it be too simplistic of me to attribute the cause of such trials and tribulations to one fundamental factor—namely, the reluctance of so many of us to abandon the comfortable past we long for, to embrace the changes that imbue the inexorable forward march of history?
I was born in North America shortly before the end of WWII, too early to be considered a baby-boomer, too late to be thought a part of the greatest generation. I was raised from boyhood to adolescence during a period from the late-40s to the early-60s, a time when all the so-called truths seemed self-evident. Either that, or no one took the time to question them.
Such broadly-accepted truths have been encapsulated in Moral Foundations Theory1, which postulates five ethical categories, each with its own set of prized qualities and traits. These are:
- purity-based morality, anchored in sanctity and piety;
- authority-based morality, valuing duty, deference, and social order;
- fairness-based morality, the flip-side of authority-based, embracing equality, impartiality, and tolerance;
- in-group-based morality, founded on loyalty to family, community, and nation; and
- harm-based morality, embracing care, compassion, and safety.
For the purpose of my search for a simple answer in this essay, let’s assume that these categories encompass the range of behavioural virtues we live by. Scholarly examinations of the Google Books database have shown that morality in general was a much more frequently-discussed issue of concern at the dawn of the twentieth century than it was by 1980, although that trend has slowly reversed since.
The purity-based category followed almost the same trajectory during that interval, and there was a noticeable increase in individualism-based values that placed greater emphasis on me than on us, reducing the impact of collectivism-based values.
Authority-based morality declined during the first half of that same century, rebounded dramatically when the established order was threatened in the late 60s, then resumed its decline during the 70s before levelling off.
In-group-morality charted upward throughout the twentieth century as people tended to cluster in like-minded groups, a trend that continues to this day, and is exacerbated when people feel threatened or challenged by new ideologies and practices, or by outsiders.
Harm-based morality, sometimes labelled the ‘bleeding-heart’ syndrome, has risen steeply since the 80s as moderation and tolerance have become more pronounced in daily life and, in many areas, in political ideologies.
Alone among the five categories, fairness-based morality with its egalitarian emphasis, demonstrated no significant increase or decrease during the same time period.
In my simple terms, this would indicate that, despite a general shift of viewpoint from the collective to the individual (the me-firsters), society in general has moved from routinely accepting authority to challenging it, and by so doing, has come to view the notion of wrongness in terms of suffering, maltreatment, and deprivation. There is a greater acceptance of ‘others’ among the majority, a more rational, irreligious, and scientific approach to how we confront matters of right and wrong.
In short, an evolving approach to communal society and those who populate it is underway.
There is, however, a contrary narrative embracing what has been called re-moralisation, a wish to go back to what many think of as a golden age, the ‘good-old days’. Elements of our communal society are becoming increasingly censorious and defensive, more outraged by the changes confronting them, which is evidenced by the growing polarisation of political debate that highlights their oft-excessive self-righteous approach.
In short, the liberalizing changes to society are jeopardizing the inherent values and beliefs such people hold dear. Hearken to the call we hear from many of them—You shall not replace us!
Simply speaking, then, fear of change is the greatest impediment to finding solutions to our problems—solutions that will satisfy the moral foundations of all of us, at least to the greatest extent possible.
Alas, despite my reading and thinking on the subject, my simple brain has yet to come up with an idea that might work. How do we convince and reassure change-resistant people that moving with the times does not require them to bend their moral codes. After all, in a free society, we are all at liberty to choose what to believe.
We are not, of course, free to impose our choices on those who believe otherwise, but surely there is room for all of us to co-exist.
Simple? No, but, let us hope, not impossible.
- Haslam, McGrath, & Wheeler, University of Melbourne, 2007